Editor’s note: This is the second and last part of an exclusive interview between Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao and Ian Buruma on the sidelines of the 2013 Shanghai Book Fair. Ian Buruma is an Anglo-Dutch writer and an authority on the cultures of Japan, China and Asia at large. He was a guest speaker at the book fair.
Q: If China’s rise is to be accepted in terms of values, what kind of values should it present the world?
A: You have many talented Chinese who can write great books, paint great paintings, think great thoughts, invent great technical things.
There are all kinds of ways in which Chinese individuals can do things that would be admired by the whole world.
I think it’s much more important that they have their chances to do, so that the government somehow finds the programs of universal values which it then promotes.
Q: As a cultural expert, what do you think is the core issue of Chinese rejuvenation of its culture?
A: Talented individuals should be given the room to express their talent. If you just look at what’s happened since the 1980s, and now it is amazing how much China has produced in terms of literature, fashion, film, theater and so on. The more freedom people have in China to do this, the more it will flower.
Q: How do you interpret the catchphrase “Chinese dream”? Is it some vision of personal achievement or should it be intertwined with the nation’s fortunes?
A: I think inevitably in the case of China, it’s meant to be intertwined with the nation’s fortunes, more so than in the United States, where it is very much in the American Constitution — the pursuit of individual happiness. Which is less appropriate in the Chinese context, where getting wealthy has to be linked in official parlance to doing good for the nation. So I think that’s the main difference.
Perhaps we should not make too much of these catchphrases. It’s probably linked to a certain kind of Chinese tradition. In traditional calligraphy, there is a moral catchphrase taken from the Confucian classics or something like that. The catchphrase is a modern version of that really.
Q: In your early book, “God’s Dust” (1989), you asked if modernity has blurred the borderlines between Asians’ identities. After so many years, does the homogenizing force of globalization make Chinese less Chinese, and Japanese less Japanese? Is identity still relevant?
A: I think it is less right than I thought at that time. I was then much more interested in identity, and now I am more skeptical of it.
I don’t think it’s enough for people, individuals simply to accumulate a lot of money, have a lot of pleasure. Most human beings want something more out of life. And for some lucky, talented individuals, that can come from your personal achievements, like writing books.
Most people feel that they need to belong somewhere, to something, to larger things. And some of that need is fulfilled by going to football stadiums, cheering on your local team, and so on. But it also means belonging to a nation. Inevitably that could be a regional feeling.
In every human being it is usually not just one thing. It can be a football team, a city and a region, and a country or a religion. So we are all a mixture of different identities. In “God’s Dust,” I overstressed the importance of national identity.
And people find ways to express their identities in ways that are often surprising and much more tenacious than we think.
For example, take a city like Chengdu, which I like very much. The first time I saw it, it was still the old city, wooden houses, teahouses and so on. And then I came back in 1999, I think it was, most of that was gone, but still a little bit was left. And then I came back in 2007, and there was nothing left.
I couldn’t recognize it anymore. All of it looked like Singapore to me. I don’t think that means people lose their identity, not necessarily, because one thing I noticed is that under the sort of new flyovers, people got together spontaneously to play local Sichuan opera.
So, even though the surface can seem standard and uniform, people express themselves in different ways.
Perhaps much more important than protecting national identity is to give people the freedom to express themselves. And they will develop their own identities.
When I wrote the book, I thought that identities had to be protected. I don’t believe it so much anymore.
Not that I think it is so great that every Chinese city looks the same with cookie-cutter buildings. I think it is a great pity, but it doesn’t necessarily destroy people’s identity.
Q: You last visited Shanghai more than 10 years ago. Has the modernizing city lost any of its quintessential charm?
A: Visually it has, because most of it is gone. Now cities do have a certain style, they are much harder to destroy. Like my story on Chengdu. Even though physically you can change a city completely, people still have local dialect and their taste in food. Shanghai still has a lot of that.
And cities change, their characters change, which doesn’t mean they all end up the same.
The character of London now is not as it was in the 1950s, or the 1850s. Certain things remain more or less the same while many other things change completely. London is more like Shanghai, New York or Tokyo than it was, but it still has its certain character. I think that is true of Shanghai too.